Mill Creek Summit to Mt. Pacifico: Shard #1

Mill Creek Summit to Mt. Pacifico (San Gabriel Mountains; trailhead roughly 23 miles north of La Canada Flintridge on CA2 and N3).

One thing about hiking is that narratologically speaking it’s not really that interesting. You walk and walk, and the view changes, usually fairly slowly. The same peaks and ridges loom ahead of you and never seem to get any closer. You sweat. There might be breeze or shadows or other hikers or animals. You get to your campsite, cook, and sleep. You get up the next day and either do the same thing over again, or you hike out and treat yourself to donuts, pizza, and a long midday shower.

One of a long line of baby backpacks we used.
The baby backpack in action

Hiking with kids is somewhat more interesting. First, there are the psychological battles. With two children less than two years apart, The Husband and I couldn’t carry enough gear to do overnights in the backcountry unless one or both of them hiked independently. Since we were invested in the idea of ourselves as tough, athletic hikers, we were selfishly motivated to train the boys to hike like grown-ups when they were still pretty small. We developed a method I’ll call trail-Ferberization. For those of you who don’t have any delicate feelings about making your children suffer, here’s how it worked. You push them relentlessly for the first two miles, hardheartedly ignoring complaints, footdragging, and whining. Remember that it takes a long time to hike two miles, because just when you’re about to throw up your hands in frustration and turn back to the car, they’ll go into the zone, quiet down, get glassy-eyed, and hike. If they flag in the middle of long hikes, try storytelling: my go-to is long, drawn-out, versions of old-school fairy tales in which I dilate their bizarrely specific and often foot-related violence (cut off heels, red hot iron shoes) and add energetic critiques of their gender politics.

Son the Younger and Son the Elder off-trailing it in Joshua Tree National Park
Son the Younger and Son the Elder off-trailing it in Joshua Tree National Park in the early days

This psychological battle came into play on a hike we took this summer. Some family friends joined us to climb Mt. Pacifico in the San Gabriels, a mom and two kids close in age to Son the Elder and Son the Younger. Her younger child started out as the weak link, the one who had to be cajoled and bribed, but true to the method, he broke through his pain threshold several miles in and began to hike like a champ. Our boys, however, began to slow us down with constant fighting about who got to lead. Since Son the Elder was hiking with quiet seriousness and Son the Younger was exhibiting symptomatic complaints and foot-dragging, Son the Elder was out front. After a particularly explosive exchange involving gummi bears, Son the Younger took the lead with a vengeance. I actually could not keep up with him and had to tell him repeatedly to slow down. I got annoyed – I was carrying a pack, not very heavy, but I wasn’t really in shape for it and there was a fair amount of elevation gain going on.

But I had more stratagems in my kit. I tried to get into the meditative state of mind, the through-hike mind. We’d been talking at home about the Buddhist concept of “right speech and deep listening”: putting a volition of compassion in every utterance, and receiving others’ utterances attentively and thoughtfully. So I told Son the Younger that I wanted him to slow down because it wasn’t safe for the group to be spread out and because I wanted all of us to be able to enjoy the hike. I wanted to be near him, to talk with him and experience the mountain with him. He slowed down, and the gap between us went from fifty or sixty feet to about ten.

The second thing that makes hiking with kids exciting is their tendency to fall into harm’s way. In our current situation, the psychological battle took so much of our attention that neither of us saw the rattlesnake that was only three or four feet from Son the Younger. It reared up, rattling with great commitment, a feline, hissing sound.

We subsequently became knowledgable about rattlesnakes in the San Gabriels. The reptile in question was probably a Southern Pacific rattlesnake. Rattlesnakes are pit vipers and in general pretty deadly. Their venom causes necrosis and coagulapathy (this is one reason why it’s not a good idea to cut the injection site). The venom kills tissue, including blood vessels and muscle, and disrupts circulation. Amputation and heart failure are possible outcomes of a bite to the hand or leg. The venom of the Southern Pacific rattlesnake can cause paralysis; if the venom affects the diaphragm, the victim essentially suffocates. Fun fact: snakes can control how much or even whether they inject venom: the snake’s age has something to do with it (younger snakes inject more) as well as whether it’s angry (bad) or surprised (not as bad). Very few people who get bitten by poisonous snakes each year in the US (7000) actually die (5).

If treatment happens within two hours, you’re probably good, although adverse factors like weighing fifty pounds and being so scared that your heart races might shrink that window. The Husband and I talked about how long it might have taken us to get Son the Younger to a hospital. I thought we’d just tear down the Angeles Crest back into La Canada and to the Verdugo Hills Hospital; he thought we’d go to Palmdale/Lancaster. We wondered if we’d had cell reception on that ridge, if they would have sent in a medevac helicopter.

We thought we respected the wilderness; we were careful about water, sunscreen, hiking companions, leaving someone in the frontcountry with the info about our backcountry exploits. But it’s easy to get cavalier, to feel like you’ve got it figured out better than most of the amateurs out there. We’d put Son the Younger in harm’s way with our agendas and our overconfidence. Granted, parenting always involves a calculus of risk and enriching experience, and the outcome of any given equation depends at least a little bit on luck. To be continued….

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